101barb blairbefore & after basics

before and after basics: sanding 101

by Barb

The first step to finishing any furniture project is sanding. Whether you choose to use a power sander or sand everything by hand, selecting the right type of sand paper is crucial to the outcome. Sanding with the wrong paper can damage your piece of furniture and cause lots of extra work for you. And we would like to avoid creating extra work for ourselves at all costs, right?

I have heard your cries about sanding woes of projects past, so today on Before and After Basics I will try to take some of the abrasiveness (pun completely intended!) out of sanding. Let’s get down to the nitty gritty (said in my best Nacho Libre voice!) — Barb

CLICK HERE for the full how-to after the jump!

Choosing the Right Grit

  • Sandpaper is graded based on the number of abrasive material per square inch, so higher numbers reflect a finer grit and lower numbers indicate a coarser grit. It usually goes something like this: medium, 80–120; fine, 150–180; very fine, 220–240; extra fine, 280–320.
  • Sanding with progressively finer grits removes the scratches left by the previous grit and eventually leaves a smooth finish. So start with a coarser grit and move on to a finer grit for your polishing step.
  • Coarse-grit papers will remove material fast and when followed by finer grit papers, make for much easier and quicker sanding. This is opposed to using a finer grit to sand the entire piece. You can do that, but it will take much more time and energy!

Sanding Tips

  • The number one rule is to ALWAYS sand with the grain of the wood, never across or against it. It totally stinks when you get this great, painted finish on a piece and you see sanding spirals staring back at you. Not good at all!
  • When I am hand sanding, I prefer a sanding sponge for a couple reasons. One, a sanding sponge contours to the piece that I am sanding especially if there is detail work and a lot of curves. Two, when you use a plain piece of sandpaper and your hand, the paper contours to your hand and not the piece, leaving an uneven sanding job. Third, a sanding sponge has sanding surfaces on all sides making it easy to get in small nooks and crannies.
  • If you decide that the job requires a belt sander, just know that you are using a powerful tool and it will eat the piece for lunch if you are not careful! Also know that the power sander cannot get into the small corners, so you will have to use a smaller detail tool for that. Belt sanders are perfect for removing lots of surface material, but use caution. In my line of furniture work I rarely find a need for a belt sander, but every now and again I do pull out the big gun!

  • I do, however, use an orbital sander on a daily basis, and it is one of my most valuable tools besides the paint brush. I love me some orbital goodness! While an orbital sander can still do some damage if not kept moving, it is much more manageable than a belt sander. One word of caution here: do not push down on the sander while in use, but rather let the sander do the work for you and keep it moving. If you leave it in one place for too long, you will have a sanding circle that looks like a little alien space ship landed on your piece!

A quick note about distressing your painted pieces: I personally use an orbital sander for all flat surfaces, such as dresser tops and drawer fronts, but prefer to use sanding sponges for any of the detail sanding. When using an orbital sander for distressing, it is crucial to keep the sander moving and on the surface of the piece. Removing the sander from the piece and then placing it back on the surface causes what I call “exit and entry wounds” that leave unnatural markings on your surface. Remember to sand areas where you feel the piece would naturally show wear and tear over time for the most authentic finish.

I hope that helps with your sanding issues! See you next week!

Suggested For You


  • Barb, have you ever used one of those “mouse” sanders? I have one and am debating whether or not I need an orbital sander for my furniture refinishing projects. Any thoughts?

  • Just to add – be careful sanding veneered pieces – it’s easy to sand right through that veneer

  • This article is so timely since I will be refinishing a little rocking chair to gift to a friend that is expecting a little girl. This article along with the staining and poly articles are a life saver. Maybe I’ll share a before and after if it looks good!

  • I refinished a set of chairs a while back and decided to strip & stain them; looking back I wish I had spent more time taking note of helpful tips like these!! The chairs turned out really cute when I finished, but the experience was anything but smooth {haha, get it – smooth – sanding?!}. I actually just posted some tips on my blog from the experience, check it out if you have a chance. :)


  • This article is uncannily timed for me. Last night my husband and I resolved a 3-day fight over sanding this HUGE 4X8 ft. table for a client of mine. This fight was second to the worst fight we ever had over sanding the cupboards in our first kitchen! I think I’ll leave sanding to the experts from here on out. Give me a good old fashioned upholstered piece to work some magic on! I’ll tackle that over serious sanding any day!! Makes me appreciate what you do even more!

  • thanks so much for the tips! HUGE multi-piece sanding project this weekend and I was terrified to pull out the sand paper, but now I feel confident that my projects will turn out swimingly! Thanks!

  • Barb,

    Any suggestions on a brand for the sander? I had a Ryobi that was not very good for me and I had to return it. It had the clips on each end to hold the paper on it.



  • Hate to be a buzzkill, but if you’re sanding something old – you’ve got to watch out for lead paint – always wear a respirator just to be safe – & gloves too! Great tips – thanks!

  • Thanks so much. I’m about to rescue a sweet chair and was unsure how to start! I check Design Sponge everyday to see what new ideas I can use!

  • Most of the time I just need to key a surface for paint, Prefer to use sanding sponges. If paint or varnish is flaky then I may get the power sander out.

  • Michelle~ I love my Porter Cable orbital sander…has velcro on sanding sheets instead of the clips (which I hate!) This sander is the bomb! The sheets come in asst grit packages and are not that pricey!
    Us ladies have smaller hands and this sander fits beautifully in my palm! Also has a dust catcher receptacle…:)
    Happy sanding ya’ll!

  • great tips! I know what you mean about those nasty little spirals, so when using the orbital on wood, how do you avoid those spirals? I can’t seem to get rid of them even though i’m not pushing hard! Thanks for this great advice, as usual!

    • molly, I had a mouse sander at one time, and use it very rarely for getting in difficult nooks and crannies, but find that the orbital sander is much more powerful and does what I need it to do better than the mouse sander.

      michelle, blake recommended a brand that I love as well, but my current orbital sander is a black and decker and it has been good to me. I do love some porter cable tools though and have nail guns, compressors and that sort of thing from them:) The velcro sanding pads are wonderful and will not frustrate you like the clip on ones have. you will feel like a new woman! :)

      jesse, the way to avoid the spirals is to work in a back and forth motion. there is a tendency to want to sand in round circles but avoid that, and work back and forth with the grain of the wood to eliminate the circles.

      **so sorry that it took me a few days to get back to you all on this one. I am out of town and have limited internet…..thanks for your patience!

  • Barb, perfect advice! I often push down hard on my orbital sander, but then get those lovely circles staring back at me after the piece is completed. Duh. Thank you, no more sanding mistakes for moi. Great article!

  • Barb, I’m in the process of sanding down an old lacquered chest of drawers. The poor thing has lots of gashes/scrapes, although they’re not super duper deep. I’m afraid I’ll totally destroy the piece with an orbital sander, so I’ve been using an 80 grit sanding sponge. After spending 2 hours or more on the top, then 2 hours on each side, I am wondering if I should just go forward with wood filler then sand with 220 grit.

    Also, I saw that glidden now makes a door and trim paint that doesn’t sag or show brush strokes—is that ok for an indoor piece?

  • Great articles I just bought a SKILL orbital sander and it works fine. I am new to sanding. I’ve had no problems with spirals so far. For me the tips are timely

  • yes, i love working with the natural wood and getting the ‘rustic’ look out of the furniture, instead of painting it. I often have got problems with the ‘rings’ left on the wood after the sander, now I know why :) I’d love to try the sanding sponge for once, as my most reliable tool is the black and Decker belt Sander. It’s seen better days (and a lot of them), but still it outlived two different mouse sanders. Thanks for a lovely post, by the way, I’m glad i found someone else loving the rustic beauty of natural wood :)


  • This is an awesome article! Does a sponge sander still allow you to put as much pressure as you need to on the object? It sounds like a great idea, but I’ve never used one. Thanks!

  • Thanks for your article. After a long break from any projects (2years) I was about to start some furniture projects where I needed to sand back the old varnish. I already have an orbital sander (think it is random) and a great Bosch detail sander but was told I should get a belt sander for the desk I was going to refinish. Now reading your article I think I might hold off on buying an expensive belt sander and try with my orbital sander first.

    Just an aside…how do you stop and start so you don’t get those circular marks?

  • I have an old church bench in need of TLC. Some water damage, scratches, nicks, splattered with a little paint.. I believe it is pine. Curved seat. I would like to sand it down to its natural wood color. I an concerned about sanding the small detailed edges. I don’t want to mess up the detail. Not everything can be a 90 degree angle. But sometimes it is the details that make you fall in love with a piece of antique furniture.
    Do you have advice for me?

    • Hi Leigh

      This is a great question. Sanding those fine details is tricky, but they do make tools to do this work by hand so you’ll have more control. It requires a steady hand and patience when you work with small mandrels and sanding cones. This You Tube video will give you an idea of what those tools look like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBWUL71lo1Y

      I’m sure there are more visual resources on You Tube that demonstrate the process for you. I’ve also seen restoration woodworkers use similar tools attached to small rotary tools, like dremels, to automate the process a bit.

      Best of luck!


  • Thank you for invaluable advice I have just got a black and decker mouse sander ( for my birthday!) I love it and have already used it on several pieces, I love it, is the 80 grit the most course? Thanks again. Yvonne.

  • Hi! I so hope I haven’t ruined an old pottery barn table that I’m refinishing!! I’ve been using the Annie Sloan products for several years and have mastered that. With this table, however, I wanted to get the old dark finish off the table top, so that I could stain it with a driftwood stain and then wax it. I’m painting and distressing the chairs and table legs in Annie Sloan Old White. My husband bought me a great new sander to use and some #8 sanding paper for it in order to get the old dark finish off. I had asked for a stripping liquid but he said that would be so messy and that I should just hold the sander down on it to remove the finish. I did this and it looks smooth and natural and ready for my stain. But while looking online for suggestions on how to do the stain, I read in several different places that you will ruin the old wood if you use coarse grit sanding paper and a sander!!! I read to always use a stripping agent first and then sand lightly before staining!! Have I ruined my table??? It looks great now, but I haven’t applied the stain or wax. Will I have problems later from sanding it so much?? Thanks for your help!!!

  • Wow..great advice..i volunteer at spca op shop in whakatane nz and am learning how to tidy up furniture that comes in..that just need a coat of paint..ie drawers..cabinets..tables..i thought i needed a belt sander..but reading the advice makes me think the finishing sander would be better…??

    • Is it the lower the grit nimber the courser the sand paper..or the other way around?

  • Lovely article. Hey, I’m a part time woodworker for my house. Actually, I wanna buy an orbital sander. I had checked out details on it but didn’t choose the right one. Would you kindly tell me which brand would be best?


  • I want to get a sander, but I also want to make sure that I understand how to use it before I get it! I’ll be sure to sand with the grain of the wood instead of against it. It makes sense that going against could cause some problems!

    • Braden, Yes you are correct it is very important to work in the direction of the grain otherwise you may spoil the overall appearance of the wood. Anyone looking to revamp their furniture should always practice on an area which is not noticeable to ensure you are happy with the results prior to attempting to do fascias and worktops.